Memorable events on Swains resulting in U.S. control

Special Projects Staff

Author Marie Tisdale Martin captures a number of memorable events on Swains Island in her book "Samoan Interlude."

Always a subject of interest, the presence of an American on Swains underscores the USA's preoccupation with protecting the rights of its citizens around the world.

It is no secret that the great power of America was invoked in the island's socio-economic-political affairs to protect the rights of the Jennings family after their patriarch, Eli Hutchinson Jennings Sr. first settled on the island in 1856.

One of Martin's chapters, entitled "Swains Island -A South Sea Idyll," tells of events the author took part in when she visited the island with a doctor from American Samoa to attend to a medical emergency.

The book conveys details about the social life of the islanders which are unfamiliar to most of the world. We include a lengthy excerpt from Martin's narrative, so that we may look back on the romantic northern island as it was about 80 years ago.

Swains had radioed-in the message that a young woman on the island was seriously sick, and needed emergency attention from a doctor in the Territory.

A boat was prepared and left that night for Swains, with the author and a doctor by the name of Edgar on board.

They arrived while it was still dark, miraculously negotiated the treacherous reef, and came ashore with the help of residents who greeted them with a small bonfire.

As the dawn broke, Martin noticed that the Jennings homestead was dilapidated, though stately. Mrs. Jennings is said to have not opened some of the rooms because she did not have a large enough household to occupy all of the expansive structure.

That morning, author Martin excitedly made the acquaintance, of Mrs. Jennings, originally from California, as the Swains matriarch nursed her eight-month-old baby.

Martin writes of Mrs. Jennings: "In her spare time, she was being initiated into the mysteries of cooking in a native ground oven and trying to pick up the native dialect so she could communicate with the villagers. Her husband was out from dawn till dusk, working with his men in the coconut plantations, and most of her days were spent alone with her baby in her crumbling mansion.

"While I passed the time of day with Mrs. Jennings, Edgar re-examined his patient; checked the villagers, about seventy people altogether; examined the nurse's reports; gave instructions to get the patient aboard the ship; and thought he had made all arrangements for our quick return to Tutuila. But when his morning's work was finished, nothing had been done.

"The villagers, having discovered that the patient was not in critical condition, had decided to make the most of the interruption in routine provided by the arrival of the boat. They had declared a holiday and gone out on a pig hunt, explaining that they wanted to present the Captain of the boat with two of the fat and juicy wild pigs which roam the island.

"Mr. Jennings told Edgar that nothing could be done about it; the hunting expedition was already under way and the rowers were all out after the pigs. Assuring us that the hunt would probably take the better part of the afternoon, he offered to show us around his domain."

Mr. Jennings then took the author and Dr. Edgar on a tour of his island. After a lengthy ride, sightseeing and eating fresh coconut fruit, they examined the ruins of a coral rock statue that was said to be of a large bird.

Jennings explained that the statue was a remnant of an ancient culture of Eastern Pacific islanders, first sighted by Fernandez de Quiros in 1606, a people of fair colored skin and light blond hair.

Quiros called the island the Land of Handsome People (Isla De La Fente Hermoza), and the ruins visited by Martin and party were among the few remnants of these people.

No evidence exists to indicate what happened to them after Quiros' experience in the 1600s.

After this, Jennings enters into another chapter of his experience on Swains. Martin writes, "We were soon back on the belt road, which now seemed a faultless highway, and as we neared home again Mr. Jennings drew our attention to little holes which had been dug here and there.

"'We're still digging for that buried treasure,' he said casually.

"What buried treasure? We were all ears, waiting to hear a tale of pirates and perhaps of an old map found in an abandoned chest. Instead we heard the story of a hurricane which had almost completely inundated the island during its richer days.

"The only warning the inhabitants had was the high-pitched scream of the rising wind and the waves crashing higher and higher on their tiny doughnut of land. In haste, they buried their possessions to save them from the clawing hand of wind and wave.

"The funds of the copra company were buried, too, in a secret place, and people set about saving themselves as best they could, digging themselves in or lashing themselves to coconut trees, not too interested in marking the exact spot of the cache. When the storm blew itself out and the survivors looked around, the face of the island was changed. Old landmarks were gone and the hiding place of the company's funds couldn't be located, and hasn't been to this day.

"'And that's not the only buried treasure,' continued Mr. Jennings. 'The natives insist there are others, left by the Peruvian slavers and freebooters who used to visit the island in earlier days. A few Spanish coins have been found. Maybe that's how the stories got started. But that copra money must be here somewhere... unless it was washed away.'

"'And then he added hopefully, 'Maybe, I'll strike it rich one of these days.'

"The romantic atmosphere of the island is certainly one to inspire belief in buried treasure... and to inspire the imagination to invention. But now it was three o'clock and time to see about hastening our departure. But the question was, how to go about hastening the crew of a longboat which are off hunting pigs.

"'You two go and have a swim, and I'll round up the men,' said the obliging Mr. Jennings.

"Without protest we dragged our wilted bodies down the crumbling concrete promenade to the rotting pier and refreshed ourselves in the lukewarm water of the lagoon. When we returned to the landing place, rowers, pigs and patient were assembled on the beach, but by no means hastening their departure. There were goodbyes to be said, messages and gifts for friends in Pago Pago to be got ready, a hundred excuses for last minute delays.

"Eventually the doctor put his foot down. The longboat was launched, the patient carried on board on a litter, and the squealing pigs secured to sticks and stowed away. Then we got in, and half the village followed. We assumed they had come along for the ride. But when we arrived at the Isobel Rose they began to climb aboard carrying their sleeping mats and bundles of clothing.

"'They come along to care for the patient. She is their aiga,' said the translator for the group, when Edgar questioned him. As practically everybody is related to everybody else on Swains, these hopefuls were using their aiga status to get a free ride to Pago Pago. Edgar and the captain realized what a drain this would be on Mr. Jennings labor force.

"The natives' disappointment was great when all but two members of the patient's immediate family were forced to disembark and dreams of a long holiday in Pago Pago quickly faded. Then the patient, who had bravely survived the frightening ordeal of being handed on a litter from heaving longboat to heaving Isobel Rose, begged to take her baby along. A two year old girl was handed up on deck. Then an auntie climbed aboard -someone must care for the child. Could the auntie's children come? No! A sister maybe? No! More last minute messages, more parcels heaved aboard; and we were off.

"Our feelings were like these of the inhabitants -but in reverse. We would have liked to stay on Swains. It is the South Sea Island which most stirred our imaginations. We still talk of returning to spend a month or two, or a year or two, to work there quietly amid its peaceful beauty -though Mrs. Jennings has long since returned to California."

Of the characters reported, the Mr. Jennings referred to by author Marie Tisdale Martin was Mr. Wallace Jennings Sr., one of the sons of Alexander Eli Jennings, the grandson of Eli Hutchinson Jennings Sr. originally from Long Island, New York.

Wallace Sr. married a lady from California, and descendants of this couple are still alive today, including former Swains Island Representative of the 1980s, Wallace Jennings Jr.

David Eli Jennings was a brother of Wallace Sr., and his descendants include present Member to the House of Representatives for Swains, Alexander Eli Jennings II.

Other siblings of the linear line fourth generation include Mrs. Eliza Jennings Thompson of Pavaiai and Mrs. Zilper (Selepa) Jennings Reed of Fagatogo, who have passed on.

It goes without saying Eli Sr. and Eli Jr., and grandson Alexander Eli were very adamant about establishing their American roots on the island, including having America declare Swains under its control.

When Alexander Eli learned of a British attempt to control Swains, which he suspected had something to do with the Jennings becoming increasingly wealthy from their copra trading business, the family naturally leaned on the United States Government to help them out.

The Jennings' relatives (Eli Sr.'s other children) were claiming in British courts their rights to Swains as well, and this pressured Alexander Eli to try more fervently to have the United States control and protect his island.

Alexander Eli had ownership problems when his sister, Eliza's British husband Irving H. Carruthers, tried to probate her will and ownership of Swains in a British court in Apia. He also appealed to the Naval Government controlling the Territory of American Samoa and later to the U.S. President for relief.

The US Congress accepted the motion to make Swains an American Territory in a Joint Resolution which passed the House on March 4, 1925. The arrangement was consummated on May 13, when the U.S. flag raising on the island established official American sovereignty. Swains was put under the jurisdiction and administration of the American Samoa Government.

The new generation of Swains people, including the Jennings, have seeded within their modern group novel ideas for growth and development of the lone island's control and administration.

The major factors molding the initiative include the liberal social doctrines of modern politics, which find today's generations divorced from the colonial values of their ancestors.

The caustic global mentality rampant in local affairs was responsible for forging the wedge between Swains' rulers and the Tokelauans, the Samoans and few other people from the region.

It appears the modern generations of Swains people have embraced the values of freedom championed by their American connections.

Today, across the board of social divisions, and with the benefits of education and the information age, the new Swains leadership, which includes current Faipule Alexander Eli Jennings in the Fono, have ambitions founded on the accomplishments that result from sweat and positive vision.

With such promise evident in today's generations of Swains people, the valued experience and wisdom of the elders and the opportunities brought by technology provide an encouraging scenario for the future.

Their background germinates a strength to grow that overrides social, economic, political and religious differences among the people with connections to the romantic island of Swains.

[The continuing series on Swains Island will comprise series on the following topics:

5. The Opposition

6. The 80th year of U.S. control



1. "Problems in Paradise" by Richard Barrett Lowe

2. "Samoan Interlude", Marie Tisdaly Martin

3. "Amerika Samoa Under the Naval Administration" by Captain J.A.C. Gray

4. "Want an Island? Help Yourself!" by Elsie Noble Caldwell

5. Official papers kept in American Samoa Office of the Archives and Records

6. Papers and records from the Jean P. Haydon Museum

7. Photos and information from records in the Historic Preservation Office with the Governor's Office

8. Samoa News archives and files

9. Jennings family records and information, some photos provided

10. Interviews with Rep. Alexander Jennings

11. Interviews with former native residents in previous years

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